Crumbling infrastructure is a sign of lost collective faith

Image of Lawrence Summers

Take a walk from the US Air Shuttle in New York’s LaGuardia airport to ground transportation. For months you will have encountered a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015”. Or take the Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge which is little more than 100 yards wide. Traffic has been diverted to support the repair of a major bridge crossing the river for more than two years, and yet work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine river is much wider than the Charles yet General George Patton needed just a day to build bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix the escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State building 85 years ago.

Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks such as keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much to handle, it is little surprise that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.

Political debates are often framed in terms of the respective roles of the public and private sector with progressives stressing the importance of private market failure and conservatives stressing the dysfunctionality of the public sector. The sad truth is that there is merit in both arguments.

The escalator that will take five months to repair is privately owned. Although it is in an airport, failure cannot be blamed on public authorities. Necessary maintenance had been delayed for years — with the escalator in question even being stripped for spare parts to support other escalators. Now the new owner has many priorities; the replacement of the escalator system is only one.

On the other hand, repair of the bridge across the Charles River is the responsibility of local governments. A combination of budgetary short sightedness, excessively rigid labour practices, and a failure to take account of the costs of traffic delays appears to account for the project’s remarkably long gestation period.

While much of the political debate takes place on a macro level, focusing on large scale changes in spending, tax or regulatory policies, I suspect that much of what frustrates the public happens on a more micro scale.

A government that has to install safety nets under bridges to catch failing debris will not inspire when it aspires to rebuild other nations.

When big companies are cannibalising their machinery for spare parts, it is hardly surprising that they are not trusted to embark on voluntary long run programmes to control greenhouse gases, promote diversity or develop new technologies.

What is to be done? First, the focus of infrastructure discussions in both the public and the private sector needs to shift from major new projects whose initiation and completion can be the occasion for grand celebration to more prosaic issues of upkeep, maintenance, and project implementation.

For example, before anyone contemplates spiffy new high-speed railway systems, careful consideration should be given to repairing existing rail lines and stations.

Second, accountants in the public and private sector need to develop methodologies for capturing deferred maintenance and showing this in the financial accounts for what it is — borrowing from the future. What is counted counts and so if maintenance deferrals were made transparent they would become much more expensive for decision makers.

Third, the public and the media on their behalf need to be much less accepting of institutional failure. It has been said that we do not want to know all to which we can become accustomed. A vicious cycle in which governments perform poorly and so are starved of resources and so perform worse is serious threat to healthy democracy.

Something similar can happen to business. If owners distrust management they will insist on taking cash out rather than permitting its use for long term investment. The only answer is prompt and aggressive responses to failure that ensure that it is shortlived.

More important than any specific remedy, there is a reason beyond the media and the public’s own economic problems why there is so much disillusionment with so many institutions. They do not seem to perform as well as they once did. We see it every day.

Fixing escalators and building bridges may seem like small stuff at a time of economic crisis and geopolitical instability. But it is time we recognise the importance of what may seem small to what is ultimately important — the faith of citizens in their collective future.

The writer is Charles W Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary


Letter in response to this column:

Repairs to a landmark bridge cannot be rushed / From Hume Vance

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